When it comes to serious figure painting, most modelers prefer to use metal figures and high quality artist’s oil paints. Because metal cast figures show some of the best detail they have long been viewed as the pinnacle or Cadillac of figure modeling. Metal cast figures come in a wide variety of scales and subject matter, and many of today’s top manufacturer’s are still found in Europe. These figures are usually limited run items and can be quite expensive.

In the last decade resin cast figures have really come into their own. Advances in resin technology and casting techniques have made for figures that rival their metal counterparts and at much more affordable prices. Everything from mainstream companies to cottage industry shops produce figures in countless scales and just about every imaginable subject matter.

With the introduction of slide molding even injection-molded figures have become more accurate and detailed with much more realistic and natural looking poses. Still with the limitations of injection molding these figures pale in comparison to metal and resin cast figures. But they are mass produced, readily available, and therefore much more reasonably priced.

When it comes to painting figures there are many who believe that high quality artists oil paint is the best medium to use. The higher the quality paint means the pigment is ground finer and has brighter and more vibrant colors. Oil paints take a long time to dry and are therefore perfect for blending colors for very natural looking skin tones and fabrics.

Using acrylic or water based paints, requires an entirely different approach. The paints have to be thinned at a different ratio than oils, and they dry extremely fast. Working with acrylics means you can paint a figure in an evening or two instead of the 2-3 weeks it might take working with oils.

For this reason many modelers today use a variety of materials and employ several techniques on the same project to achieve the final look they are seeking. Models base coated in acrylic paints will often get a wash coat of enamel or oil. Conversely models finished in enamel or lacquer based paints will usually be washed in acrylics. Thinners, filters, washes, dry brushing, pigments, sealers ……the list goes on and on. Most of these products have strong fumes and require precaution when using or handling, proper ventilation is extremely important. And this is one of the main reason I have developed all of my techniques around water based products that are usually very low in odor, clean up easily, and are generally safer to use. The fact that I have had small children growing up over the last decade helped to make this decision a no brainer.

With the exception of using oil paints to add washes to my vehicles, I work exclusively in acrylics and watercolors. Using watercolors I have learned how to manipulate, push and move or even “erase” entire layers of paint. For me there is no other method that gives you more control over the final outcome. In fact at any point during the painting process right up until you seal the paint you can easily strip the piece back down to bare plastic within minutes without harming or altering any detail, try that with enamels or oil paints.

Let’s get started:

  1. The figures are assembled, and all seams addressed. In this case we’re using Tamiya’s US Pershing figure in cold dress, and Tamiya’s DAK officer in short sleeves.
  2. The pose and detail of the figure will often dictate how much of the painting is done prior to complete assembly of the figure. With the DAK figure the head was left off until after the skin base coat had been applied
  3. The figures are airbrushed with a neutral color that will act as a foundation for all of the other brush painting to follow. In this case the US figure is sprayed in Tamiya Buff (XF-57) and the DAK Officer gets a coat of Tamiya Dark Yellow (XF-60).
  4. The paints are thinned at a ratio of about 70% thinner to 30% paint. When thinning you can either use a thinner specifically made for those paints, usually from the same manufacturer, or as with the case of Tamiya and Gunze Sangyo paints, isopropyl alcohol and purified water work excellently. You can also add one drop of liquid dish detergent, which acts as a “wetting agent” that helps the paint lay down in an ultra smooth coat without omitting any details.
  5. Next the skin base color is brushed on. The US figure was painted in a pale flesh, with the plans to add redder tones on the cheeks and nose to help show the cold, where as the DAK figure’s skin started a warmer orange tone to suggest sun exposure or a suntan. The trick to painting with acrylics is paint consistency and to work relatively quickly and free form. The skin tones were built up in several layers. Avoid letting overlapping areas dry, or you will see the overlap in the paint.
  6. I almost always start with the face, because you can paint a beautiful figure that looks awesome only to screw the whole thing up with a poorly painted face. Nail the face first and the rest of the figure seems to fall into place. Here’s where I start with water colors, using them to create washes that add life to the skin and make the detail “pop”.
  7. I let the base color dictate which color I start my wash with. With the Pershing figure I started with three colors, tiente chair ( a warm flesh tone ), orange, and raw sienna. With the DAK Officer orange was the lightest color I used followed with raw sienna, and burnt umber. Following traditional techniques for figure painting I applied the washes working with all three color at once. Use the lightest of the washes to cover the entire face, then as the sculpted details become deeper use darker colors to accentuate their depth. I base coat the entire face with the lightest wash, and then use the medium color for the sides of the nose, under the nose, lip and chin, I also outline the skin where the flesh and fabric or hair intersect.
  8. Reds and oranges are slowly added to give the skin a richer color and make it come alive. Concentrate on the cheeks and lips. With watercolors because they dry so fast you can allow a coat of paint to completely dry in a matter of minutes and then go back in with a brush dampened with water to push the paint into a detail area, soften the edges, or completely lift the entire wash if it doesn’t look like what you were hoping for. Here’s where you can use that moist brush to lift or erase all of the wash color along the upper cheek bones, ridge of the nose, chin and forehead exposing the base color which now becomes a highlight compared to the surrounding skin tones.
  9. Eyes are the toughest part and can make or break a figure. My only advice here is to avoid the temptation of painting white circles for eyes with a colored dot in the middle. Even in this large scale painting white eyeballs will give you figure that bug eyed or eyes popping out of the head look. Just let the darkest of your wash colors fill the cavity of the eyes and that is usually sufficient. With the DAK commander he has a slightly squinting appearance, as if he is in the bright sun. The Pershing driver, had a little wider eye area sculpted so I added a light gray/blue color followed by a vertical line of the same dark wash color. Take care when adding eyes that they are looking the same direction.
  10. Next we move onto the rest of the figure. Just like we read left to right and top to bottom, painting has a specific sequence that if followed nets the best results. Think of painting a figure as if you were dressing it. No not putting the pants on one leg at a time, but think in layers and paint from top to bottom. I start by base coating or blocking in large areas of color to give me a better sense of how the colors are going to work together on the finished figure. I’m more of an intuitive painter, and I go for what looks good as opposed to a specific color reference or color chip says it should be. In fact every color I used on these figures with the exception of the buff and dark yellow base coats were hand mixed to my personal preference. Who’s the authority that’s going to tell you that skin tone is too orange or too pale in color.
  11. Once the main colors are blocked in I go back and start working on specific areas, again working from top to bottom. Using the base color of the jacket for example I will add about 30% of a darker tone (I stay away from using black as it often muddies the original color), on a green jacket I may use a darker tone of green or even a dark brown. Give the jacket a generous wash and see where the paint gathers or puddles in the recesses and wrinkles. Once dry I go back in and add a second wash or even a third wash building up the color in successive layers. With each layer I add more and more of the darker colored paint. The one critical piece of advice here is to ensure you don’t have hard or abrupt edges in you painting. Once each layer is dry go back with a soft brush slightly moistened with water to soften the edges where your shadow color meets the fabric base color.
  12. Now go in with a very dark color and a small round brush and outline detail items such as belts, straps, and buttons. Also use this dark color to outline where the fabric meets another color such as skin or another article of clothing. With this outlining you over accentuate the natural shadows which helps give the figure more life. Again because we are using watercolor if your outlines get to be too wide or prominent, it’s not a problem. Wait until the paint dries and go back in with a moist brush and push the paint towards the raised detail such as the straps on this tankers overalls.
  13. Once we a have completed all of the layers of dark shadows we are going to add we will now jump into highlights. Same process as before but rather than working in the recess we will now be working on the peaks or high areas. I have found that when doing shadows I usually build up two or three layers of shadow colors, but with highlights only one or possibly two layers is needed to complete the process of adding depth. Again start with the base color and add a lighter tone or white at a mix of about 70% base color and 30% of the lighter tone. With a round brush start laying this highlight color on the top of wrinkles and folds, edges of cuffs and collars, along the top edges of pockets or anywhere else light will hit more directly. Take your time and move slowly, stop and examine your work frequently. If your unsure of where a highlight or shadow would normally fall hold the figure directly under a bright light and observe where the shadows and highlight are most prominent.
  14. The final step is to add detail painting of buckles, buttons, metals and insignias. For these just remember that these are military figures so avoid using bright aluminum or silver. In my case I used a soft silver gray color that is not metallic. At this stage of the painting process the details should already have a nice dark outline around left from an earlier stage of adding washes, so all you should need to do is use a small detail brush to pick out only the highest points of the detail piece.

Now many people will argue with me that oils will still give you the best results especially for skin tones, and I’m not suggesting the methods I outlined above are the best or only way, but I believe this combination of materials and technique compliment my painting style the best. What do you have to lose give acrylics and watercolors a try, after all you can always rinse it off.

More figures done in the same style.